Attention Deficit

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“Men have no eyes but for those aspects of things which they have already been taught to discern.” —William James, Psychology

In April 1931, George Orwell wrote a short piece entitled “The Spike” for a magazine called Adelphi. In it he describes time he spent as a tramp. He became a tramp, a homeless person, partly of necessity and partly because he wished to understand the particular forms of suffering that tramps go through. One virulent irritation was boredom. Orwell came to think that boredom was the worst of a tramp’s burdens, worse than hunger and worse than the feeling of social disgrace. “It is a silly piece of cruelty to confine an ignorant man all day with nothing to do; it is like chaining a dog in a barrel,” he said. “Only an educated man, who has consolations within himself, can endure confinement. Tramps, unlettered types as nearly all of them are, face their poverty with blank, resourceless minds.”

Today, Orwell would be accused of elitism and would be made to tweet an apology. But Orwell was nothing if not honest and having lived the life on the street could speak with authority. One need only pass through any metropolitan area to see the homeless on benches, median strips, near metro stations or on corners, many of them slumped against a wall, sleeping huddled against the cold or in a quiet corner of a coffee shop. Their days unwind with agonizing slowness, each minute trudging after the next. In this essay, Orwell recounts how he was saved from the ten hours of daylight boredom in the spike (homeless shelter) by the blessed reprieve of working in the kitchen. Even so, one suspects that with his powers of observation and his interests in literature, politics, and history, Orwell would not likely suffocate in boredom.

There are two elements at work here: memory and attention. Memory, because we are hardly human without it, and attention because it is necessary to learning of any sort. William James devotes a chapter of his seminal work, Psychology, to attention, describing it of two kinds. There is the effortless, involuntary, and passive kind, and there is the active and voluntary kind. Involuntary attention occurs when we follow a train of thought that is interesting as a means to an end or when the mere association with the thought burnishes us with a sense of satisfaction.

Active, voluntary attention is that which we make a determined effort to accomplish by bending our minds to it. James remarks that it is a feeling which everyone knows, but which is indescribable. We sense it when we try to discriminate between sensory experiences or attend to one voice near us against a babble of other voices. It is an effort whose accomplishment slips through our fingers like water. James says, “There is no such thing as voluntary attention sustained for more than a few seconds at a time” (his emphasis). He describes a process that sounds like the building, layer upon layer, of a pearl around a grain of sand. The mind, finding something interesting, comes back to it, turns it over and over until the novelty wears off, then drifts away, only to return for the feeling of both familiarity and the stimulation of finding something new. And here is the sentence that lit up for me like a Jumbotron: “No one can possibly attend continuously to an object that does not change.”

We pay attention to what matters to us, says James, in a statement that seems so self-evident as to be trivial. That is, until you realize what it implies: that so much of what we overlook, do not see—not to say, ignore—is a result of us just not caring enough.

Actually, that’s not quite true; to say that we don’t care is to suggest that we somehow rank the sensations and ideas coming to us on a scale from exciting to dull, and we jettison everything that doesn’t bend the needle of our interest. But James’ research led him to what one of his sources called preperception, “the imagining of an experience before it occurs.” In other words, there must be a memory, an image, an association already in us in order for something to become the object of our willed attention. While shiny and colorful objects may momentarily grab our attention, such eye candy cannot hold us for long.

The kind of intellectual attention needed for concentrated study or contemplation seems to be a combination of external sensation and internal preparation which, comments James, “always partly consists of the creation of an imaginary duplicate of the object in the mind.” To put it another way, when we give our attention to an object of thought we hold an image of it in our mind going forward. Not only that, but the image remains as a hook to snag passing thoughts, perceptions, even emotions, so that we can take up ideas where we left them in memory because we have something almost tangible to return to.

When we form such an image and it fills our attention we cannot unnotice it. James again: “But who that has once noticed the identity can fail to have it arrest his attention again?...Every bonnet in the street is momentarily taken by the lover to enshroud the head of his idol. The image in the mind is the attention; the preperception is half of the perception of the looked-for thing.”

We pay attention to what we have already been taught to discern. That is both good news and bad news. The good news is that what we’ve been taught has some chance, however slight, of catching our attention again. The bad news is: What would it take to have us care enough about what we don’t know to pay attention long enough to form an image in our minds? In the end, this is an epistemological question, a question of how we know, what can be known, and what we do with what we know. Inevitably, it is a question of learning—and teaching.

“I see everything,” says Robert Downey, Jr., playing Sherlock. “That is my curse.” But for most of us our curse is not seeing enough of what we are paying attention to, narrow though that slice of life may be.

Attention must be paid! To pay attention reveals the cost of focusing with intention on something. When we focus on something, says Winifred Gallagher in Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life, we select some things and leave the rest as a blur. What we select literally becomes our reality, so that in a very real sense I have my reality and you have yours. The fact that much of our realities overlap means that we can communicate with each other while experiencing reality from singular perspectives. But I digress…

We select that which stands out—a red cardinal flitting through the trees, a hissing snake—whatever is new or different in our environment. Gallagher calls this “bottom-up attention,” the kind which keeps us in touch with what is going on in the world. It’s necessary, sometimes crucial, for our survival, but it also includes a host of unnecessary distractions. Think of dogs and squirrels and you get an idea of what life would be like if this passive form of attention was all we had.

The other form of attention is the “top-down” intentional and focused variety in which we concentrate on what we want. This active attention requires hard work and energy, but despite our intense focus it will likely quickly fade. That’s the cost we pay for attention which can give us direction and purpose—a meaningful life rather than a jumble of confusing stimuli.

***

Given all this—given the fact that we have what Buddhists call ‘monkey mind’ that flits from one thing to another like a monkey swinging through the trees—how do we focus our attention upon God? Every religious tradition has sought ways to quiet the mind long enough to hear the still, small voice within the hurricanes and tremors of daily life.

There are techniques for quieting oneself, methods of breathing, ways and means for being truly present that people have used for thousands of years in this pursuit of God. All of these have their place; my purpose here is neither to endorse them nor diminish them. What I’m trying to grasp is how I might have the mind of Christ or pray without ceasing or meditate on the Lord both night and day. All of these states of being assume that we can still brush our teeth, put on our socks, drive our cars, and carry on conversations. Whatever it means to focus one’s attention on God it cannot necessarily mean that we isolate ourselves. “Christ comes alive in the communion between people,” writes Christian Wiman in My Bright Abyss. “What this means is that even if you are socially shy and generally inarticulate about spiritual matters—and I say this as someone who finds casual social interactions often quite difficult and my own feelings about faith intractably mute—you must not swerve from the engagements God offers you.”

These may come in the form of people who do not look like God. We might not even see them because they are not usually within the scope of our attention. On the other hand, we may constantly be with people who seem wholly self-sufficient, confident, amiable enough—people much like ourselves—people for whom God is an article of belief rather than a mystery of faith. Nevertheless, those whom we meet are, in every case, an offer of communion from Christ.

God approaches us in the person of others: “the least of these,” the one-percenters, the strangers within our gates. Our attention, divided though it may be, honors God in this way.

 

Barry Casey taught religion, philosophy, and communications for 28 years at Columbia Union College, now Washington Adventist University, and business communication at Stevenson University for 7 years. He continues as adjunct professor in ethics and philosophy at Trinity Washington University, D.C. More of the author’s writing can be found on his blog, Dante’s Woods.

Photo by Ehimetalor Unuabona / Unsplash.com

 

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